Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with J.B. MacKinnon

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J.B. MacKinnon

Today we continue our interview series celebrating the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction with shortlisted author J.B. MacKinnon.

J.B. is nominated for The Once and Future World: Nature As it Was, As it Is, As it Could Be (Random House Canada), a book in three parts that examines where our physical world has been, where it is going and how we can and must change. Rather than focusing on alarmism, however, J.B. examines how the changing environment affects our lives, and the fascinating adaptations amongst both animal and plant life. In The Once and Future World, J.B. writes: "It remains a beautiful world, and it is its beauty, not its emptiness, that should inspire us to seek more nature in our lives."

Today J.B. speaks to us about "rewild-ing", painful chairs and celebratory ones, and how non-fiction provides room for contemplation.

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction honours the finest works of non-fiction published in Canada each year. The winner will receive $60,000. The Writers' Trust of Canada also creates teaching resources for senior high school educators based on the shortlisted titles.

Check out all of Open Book's interviews with finalists through our continuing Weston Words series and stay tuned for our coverage of the October 21, 2013 announcement of the winner!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

J.B. MacKinnon:

The Once and Future World is a book about what nature was like in the past, and what that tells us about nature today. It’s literary time travel, a way of revisiting the incredible living world that was witnessed by our ancestors, and then retracing how we not only lost that natural abundance, but have largely forgotten it ever existed. There is some sadness in the book, of course, but also — I hope — the inspiration to set a higher bar for what nature will be in the future. We have a wonderful opportunity to “rewild” the world, and even ourselves.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination?


The call from the Writers’ Trust came as a total surprise: there was more than a week to go before my book even went on sale. I was at my desk, sitting on what my friends call “the chair of pain” — a hard wooden chair that I found in an alley years ago. I have an old back injury (thrown from a horse) and can’t use soft chairs, and I also like to be a little uncomfortable when I write.

My partner Alisa had received good news that same day, and nothing is as celebratory as the cheerful kitsch of tiki culture, so we made our way to a bar called the Shameful Tiki Room. We were both swamped with work, so we kept things modest — it was enough just to spend a little time on wicker thrones.


What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?


I think the best way I can answer this is to talk a bit about my own writing process. Everything I write is a way of engaging with the question of how to think about the world I live in — in my opinion, this is my job as a non-fiction writer. I get to contemplate, in a world that makes little room for contemplation; I get to go deep in a world that increasingly skims the surface. When the result is a book, it’s because I think that it has to be a book — that it couldn’t have been a tweet or a novel or a magazine article. It’s an attempt to have a long and heartfelt conversation with the reader about a matter that we both agree is important.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


A book I constantly return to is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun, a recollection of his time working in Africa as Cold War-era Poland’s only foreign correspondent. I admire non-fiction writers who attempt to pull many threads together from different directions (reportage, personal experience, poetic observation, philosophical insight), whether or not they always succeed. Kapuscinski is a lyrical and literary journalist, but what I admire most about him is his restraint: I almost never feel that he is exaggerating his observations, which gives them tremendous credibility and force.


What can you tell us about your next project?


My projects typically start out with a series of journeys down blind alleys and box canyons. That’s probably about as much as I can say.

J.B. MacKinnon has won numerous national and international awards for journalism. As the originator of the 100-mile diet concept, he appears regularly in Canada and the USA as a speaker and commentator on ecology and food. His book, The 100-Mile Diet, co-authored with Alisa Smith, was a national bestseller and inspired a TV series in which the small town of Mission, BC, learned to eat locally. He was also the co-author, with Mia Kirshner and artists Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, of I Live Here, a groundbreaking "paper documentary" about displaced people that made top 10 lists in media as diverse as the Bloomsbury Literary Review and Comic Book Resources, as well as becoming a Los Angeles Times bestseller. His first book, Dead Man in Paradise, in which he investigated the assassination of his uncle, a radical priest in the Dominican Republic, won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction.

For more information about The Once and Future World: Nature As it Was, As it Is, As it Could Be please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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